Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is Traditional Art Facing Imminent Death? Malawi in Perspective

Some emerge from secluded rooms to face appreciative crowds. Others work in groups in crowded buildings to create sculptors and paintings that invoke sadness on people’s faces. Call it the joy of being a fine artist: the ability to bring sadness or laughter on people’s faces.
However, while artists have the temerity to control people’s tempers through their art works, it had emerged that Malawian fine artists who specialize in traditional art crafts are increasingly finding themselves facing a falling sun due to lack of proper recognition and financial returns.
“A lot needs to be done to promote traditional art craft in the country as a significant number of Malawians doesn’t seem to appreciate our works. This is the reason most artists go for contemporary art, which often depicts Western ideologies. What suffers, in the end, is our culture,” says fine artist Kenneth Namalomba.
Namalomba says even policymakers do not seem to appreciate the crucial role fine artists play in national development.
Namalomba, who has contributed to the country’s arts industry through works such as ‘Sunset in Malawi’, ‘Abolition of Slavery’, ‘The Way You Make Me Free’, among others, cites the lack of awards, competitions and sponsorship deals as some of the signs of systematic neglect.
He says, without proper mechanisms to promote cultural aspects that make Malawian artists stand out in a crowded world, local artists will continue to face these little infidelities in their quest to promote local works.
Namalomba says the promotion of art works that depict the typical life of Malawians lies in the power to make the local artist smile, suggesting that the government and the corporate sector should, somehow, inherit the burden of care.

Local versus money
Renowned artist Elson Kambalu acknowledges that Malawi faces a tall order in promoting the depiction of local arts due to issues such as lack of appreciation by Malawians, and the potential to earn income from such works.
“At the moment, there is little we can point at as purely Malawian. Even painting is Western; it’s an alien concept. Artists create works with the idea of selling to tourists in mind. Malawi has never, at any point, developed paintings based on purely local concepts and depictions and this is because artists consider works that may bring them income when coming up with concepts,” says Kambalu.
Kambalu says lack of appreciation of local products has forced artists to prioritise foreign concepts in a bid to maximize financial returns for their sweat.
He cites the proliferation of other types of art works, other than sculptors, as a sign that Malawi is yet to appreciate its own cultural concepts.
“Traditionally, we are into sculptors, even though we also hear that sculptors originated from the East,” says Kambalu. 
Kambalu, who has been fighting for the preservation of local heritage sites, says lack of appreciation for cultural aspects in Malawi has led other countries to claim Malawian concepts as their own.
“Just look at Mipini Art, which we could have capitalized on to leave a mark in the world,” says Kambalu.
“Maybe we don’t treat fine arts seriously. Just imagine, our friends in other parts of the world started developing art academies as far back as 1791, but Malawi has no single art academy. As a result, everyone who wants to become an artist in Malawi starts off by drawing a painting which, in most cases, lacks in some aspects. The problem is that we are not doing painting or sculptor with our souls,” says Kambalu, adding:
“I say we are not painting with our souls because we are not telling our story; we are telling an alien story.”

Value addition
For fine arts educationist and enthusiast, Bernard Kwilimbe, the solution to getting the Malawian artist and arts lover to like local inventions lies in adding value to what is already there.
“Simply put, art means the power of making beautiful things. We already have the people and the implements to use to depict whatever an artist wants to,” says Kwilimbe.
On the issue of duplication of foreign concepts, Kwilimbe says there is nothing wrong with the application of movement-concepts such as realism, renaissance, cubism, abstract art, plastic arts, observing that these movements can be used to depict local aspects.
One of Malawi’s best plastic artists include Peter Masina. Nixon Malamula is another artist whose works show that it is possible to blend foreign concepts with local aspects to come up with something unique.
“What we need is to raise awareness, educating the creator, middlemen, corporate world, and civil society. Otherwise, we already have a firm background, the threshold. You talk of milimo, kusoka mphasa. Even the mask used in the Big Dance; it has a big story to tell,” says the artist.
Kwilimbe observes that, due to their attractive nature, some of the cultural aspects from Malawi are depicted in other countries.
“For example, we have Makonde Arts which, we understand, originated in Malawi. But culture is dynamic; Mozambicans have taken it as their own (art),” says Kwilimbe.
He laments that, while needle work and hand craft used to be part of the primary school curriculum in the days of old, their abandonment led to the collapse in interest among children.
However, Kwilimbe observes that initiatives have been put in place before to promote local arts, citing the initiative by foreign national Paul Januarious who created a website called ‘Brother in Arts’ where local artists portrayed their works. Some managed to secure markets for their goods.
But not all is lost, he enthuses. He says, once value is added to local works, it will be possible for the local artist to put their weary hands to rest, and let their tender heart free to pour itself out in the wise charity of bring smiles on many an arts’ enthusiast’s faces.  

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